THE GIFTED Nepalese writer Samrat Upadhyay writes in English about ordinary, mostly middle class characters in his homeland, and their struggles against economic hardship and entrenched social customs. His latest novel, The City Son, explores dichotomies already familiar to readers of his work: he sets the city — always Kathmandu — against the village, and men against women. His female characters are, again, particularly vulnerable, as they are forced into arranged marriages and later abandoned by their husbands, who fall in love with other women. In this case, the rural, female protagonist of The City Son refuses to accept her fate, and fights back in a manner that challenges not only social norms, but also what we’ve come to expect in a South Asian female character, period. Upadhyay’s Didi is a victim who becomes a predatory villain, yet she remains a deeply tragic, near mythic figure, whose actions lead to no happiness, least of all for herself.
A heavy woman with “a regrettable face” and a voracious sexual appetite, Didi lives in a village with her two young sons while her husband, the Masterji, lives in Kathmandu where he teaches math — their marriage was a financial arrangement in which Masterji benefited. As the novel opens, Didi learns that the Masterji has married an attractive young tutee, and they have a beautiful son. Didi promptly collects her own sons and moves to the city, into the Masterji’s modest apartment, and takes over the household. The Masterji and his second wife, Apsara, are too intimidated to resist.
At the center of the maelstrom stands young Tarun: the eponymous city son. Didi showers him with affection until, like a starving child, he hangs on her every glance and gesture, thus creating a dependency that will know no bounds. Didi succeeds in driving Apsara and Tarun out of the house, but her control over the boy is just beginning.
Upadhyay’s writing is lucid and straightforward. He focuses on the minute details of setting and characters to draw us into the narrative. Here’s an example:
When Tarun and his mother, Apsara, arrive about an hour later, Didi is cooking in the kitchen, her back to them. She doesn’t turn to look. Amit and Sumit are playing a game of snakes and ladders in the corner, and they stop, their eyes first on Apsara, then on Tarun. The Masterji is sitting on the bed. Apsara pauses in the doorway, her hand holding a bag of spinach she was going to cook.
Thepresent tense adds an immediacy that makes this narrative feel very close, different from some of Upadhyay’s other epic work.
Upadhyay has always written graphically about sex, but in this novel, he verges on the prurient.Particularly disturbing are scenes that involve the stepmother molesting her young stepson, and not once, but continually. “She comes close to him and stands a few inches away. She’s breathing heavily […] her eyes are big and shiny and filled with something that seems to want to swallow him.” For years, Didi exerts total emotional and sexual control over the vulnerable Tarun. He grows into a young man filled with self-loathing, but unable to pry himself from her grasp. It is impossible not to find Didi’s behavior revolting.
However, the sex is not gratuitous. As ever, Upadhyay uses sex and so-called transgressive relationships (those between people of different classes or groups, relationships that defy convention) in order to reflect on the established, often intricate social order. In his first novel, The Guru of Love, Ramchandra, another married math tutor, falls in love with the young Malati. There too, the wife, Goma, forces them all to live together, effectively destroying her husband’s relationship with his lover. Goma is a far more sympathetic character than Didi, but the similarities in their situation are too striking to ignore. In a complex society bound by tradition, Upadhyay seems obsessed with the role of personal choice, and clearly, after Guru, he was not done thinking about it.
Upadhyay’s men and women frequently fall in love — or lust — with the wrong people. The City Son’s Didi does so to a point of perversion. But incest is not the only transgression; it is easy, given the sensationalism of that relationship, to overlook the other great boundary-crashing at work. Didi’s incursion into her husband’s second family is also an incursion of the rural Nepali village into the urban, educated city life. Note that Didi identifies Tarun not as the beautiful son or the good son but as the city son. As the title suggests, the great distinction in this novel is that between the city and the village.
Unlike Upadhyay’s earlier work, this one includes a generous smattering of untranslated Nepali phrases and dialogue. In an interview this reviewer conducted (published on the Asian writing website Kitaab), Upadhyay pointed out that except in urban areas, English and Nepali do not interact as often as English and the vernacular languages do in India. His use of Nepali in this novel illustrates an attempt to bring together disparate worlds, an attempt that — we are warned over and over — cannot be successful. The worlds coexist, but will not be merged.
Unlike India, which has several urban, cosmopolitan cities, Nepal has only one such mega city: Kathmandu. Nepali writing in English has therefore largely been focused around Kathmandu, which has become symbolic of all that is good and bad about contemporary Nepal. Interestingly, Kathmandu is never mentioned by name in The City Son. It is simply “the city,” perhaps to suggest all such large cities whose forces might similarly impact the lives of outsiders. Characters frequently take long meandering walks through the different neighborhoods, where they observe sights, sounds, and smells. Again, Upadhyay’s use of meticulous description paints a vivid portrait of Kathmandu’s socioeconomic spectrum, from the tourist district of Thamel where white hippies flourish, to the Buddhist Swayambhunath Temple populated by monkeys and boy-monks, to the dense crowds and rundown buildings of Dillibazar.
While The City Son is less political than the earlier books, in which Maoist insurgencies, rebellions against the royal family, and other instances of unrest arise; Upadhyay is also ever-alert to class distinctions. After Tarun and his mother move to their own apartment, we learn that:
He’s made a couple of friends here, street urchins who are awed by the fact that he lives in a flat, attends a boarding school, and speaks good English, and yet here he is among them, swimming in the river like a common ruffian.
The fact that Tarun is so comfortable with the street urchins and needs their company signals an emotional susceptibility to his stepmother who, as a village person, shares a similar class standing to the boys. Didi herself never forgets that she is not from the city. She warns Tarun:
All these girls are not worth your time. These sahariya types. They’ll stab you in the back the first chance they get. They don’t have any morals, just like your mother. Look at how she so unabashedly fornicated with your father.
When Didi begins to wear red lipstick and powder her cheeks, perhaps signaling her transition to the ways of the city, Tarun finds her more attractive. She calls Tarun her “labar,” or lover, in her rural accent. She is becoming one of the “sahariya women.” And yet, the manner in which she wreaks havoc on the lives of all those around her suggests that she is trying to impose her own — rural — will upon her surroundings.
Historically, both Western and South Asian writers have routinely depicted South Asian men as predatory while the women are often victims, whether of arranged marriage or other social customs that demean and marginalize them. In Upadhyay’s earlier work, the female characters are acted upon by poverty and patriarchal customs. Didi, however, has agency; she takes matters into her own hands — to a degree that makes her monstrous. However, we should not forget that she began a victim.
In his first letters to her from the city, the Masterji claimed to feel “peeda” at his long separation from his family, a word that suggests ache, longing, or anguish. “Peeda: she loved the word he used for his torture. Peeda was what she felt, too, except she never expressed it.” But this was a marriage the Masterji undertook to please his father, a marriage born of financial gain and filial obligation and not of any deep husbandly feeling. Didi first suffers an enforced separation from her husband, then the years of loneliness, and finally, his betrayal. As Didi learns of the Masterji’s second family, Upadhyay writes:
What’s going to happen to my boys? she reflects. But it’s too late, and she knows it. She’s not at the start of this momentum; she’s already in the middle of it. The boys are going to suffer. Other people, unknown faces she hasn’t yet met, are going to suffer — people who are now suddenly connected to her.
In light of this, Didi’s seduction of Tarun is an inevitability, the fallout of her instinctual confrontation with the powerful forces of the city. Readers beware, this passage seems to say: whatever unfolds over the course of the novel is beyond the scope of Didi’s personal responsibility. Notably, the passage quoted above is the last time that we get inside Didi’s head. From here on out we will see her only as the other characters see her: an unstoppable marauder. But isn’t she herself the victim of powerful, inexorable forces?
Once Didi moves to the city and embarks on her destruction, the point of view shifts to all the other characters. In Part Two, the focus is largely on Tarun as a young man; Part Three introduces a new character, Rukma — Tarun’s wife, and is told entirely from her point of view. We shift back to Didi only as she metamorphoses into a villain. In this manner, Upadhyay manages to never side with her, even while providing us with all the information we need.
Upadhyay is interested in female anguish — peeda — as it occurs in a traditional, patriarchal society, and he studies it through complex and intricate plots. Throughout his work, various arranged marriages are unceremoniously disrupted when the husband falls in love with another woman. In the short story “The Weight of a Gun,” which can be considered a precursor to The City Son, Ananda leaves Janaki after 20 years of marriage for a woman who works in his office. “She lay still, and he said, ‘It has nothing to do with you, Janaki.’ She didn’t speak. ‘It’s just that…with her I’ve begun to feel a lot of things.’ ” After Ananda’s second wife abandons him and their newborn son, he gives the baby to Janaki to take care of. Suddenly, Janaki has a renewed purpose in life, and shuts her door to her own, mentally handicapped son to care for her husband’s baby with another woman.
In another variation on the displaced wife, Didi’s appropriation of Tarun stems from a desire to become his real mother and to replace — even obliterate — his own mother. There’s nothing subtle about it: when they are in bed together, she says to him,
You love your Didi, don’t you? She asks. He nods. You love me more than you love your mother? She asks slyly. He’s silent, then he says, I love you more than my mother. She closes her eyes and takes a long breath, gratified. I’m your real mother, am I not, even though I'm ugly?
Faced with the horrific nature of what she does to an innocent young boy, it is easy to forget that it was Didi who was abandoned, replaced, and forgotten, without so much as a farewell. She is also the one who was so ugly that her doomed marriage prospects were salvaged only by her family’s fortune.
And yet it is the city women who often have no agency. Tarun’s mother descends into insanity, while in Buddha’s Orphans, a wealthy widow turns into an alcoholic when her husband dies. Set against the failure of these women to fight or even survive their circumstances, the manipulative and aggressive actions of someone like Didi — the coarse village woman — signifies the vitality, the life force of the village. Didi was, at the start, “a battered bhakundo, like the football our local boys kick so hard on the field that it’s all blackened and bruised.” Her only weapons are her sexuality and her maternity, and she combines these to summon a monstrous power. From victim to perpetrator, from village to city, Didi travels a great distance. But it is unlikely that the path she has chosen can lead to any good or redemption. In Upadhyay’s darkest, most disturbing novel to date, Didi stands as an intensely tragic figure, perhaps even more tragic than the passive, suffering wives who silently accept their lot.